Monday, 14 August 1961
“THE WEST DOES NOTHING!” – headline of West Germany’s leading tabloid, BLICK Zeitung.
“East Germany is now a concentration camp holding 17 million people prisoner!” – headline of The Berliner Tagepost
Tensions between the two halves of the divided city remain high. On border streets, West German youths threw rocks over the barbed wire at the Soviet border soldiers. DDR soldiers rushed to defend the Soviets with firehoses and tear gas, but strong gusts of wind blew the gas back, forcing a retreat.
* * *
Monday, 6:00 a.m.
The sun had already been up for two hours, though no one could see it in the thick cloud cover. The air was a little drier, but inside the buildings it was still stiflingly humid. On busses and trains in the western sectors, people sat tight-lipped, reading the headlines over and over in disbelief.
Commuters in cars didn’t have that luxury, with the exception of two men in the back of a large black Lincoln weaving through heavy traffic on the Kaiserdamm. The two, both Americans, were going through a stack of German newspapers. “Geez, I hate this weather,” said the first, tall and thin with a New England accent. He took off his hat and wiped his bald head. “I’ve been up since 3 a.m. talking with our people in Bonn. The West Germans are very unhappy with us,”
“Tell me something I don’t already know.” said his companion, a stocky Texan named Buford with a prominent scar across his stubby nose. “I got to call the chancellor’s office in another hour. There’s no point in telling Adenauer that none of our people in Moscow warned us.”
“I know,” said the New Englander, who went by the name of Burns. “But I’m not sure we could’ve done much even if we had known.”
“We could’ve packed West Berlin with more troops — that would’ve made them think twice,” said Buford. “I feel damn naked with only the troops we got now.”
Burns glanced at the other cars. “Think of what those poor bastards must feel like.”
“Yeah, I know…” said Buford, shaking his head. “Khrushchev must be pissing himself with laughter. The President’s still on goddamn holiday, can you believe that?”
“He doesn’t seem to be losing too much sleep. Unlike everyone here…” Burns pulled out another paper. “Look at this — BLICK Zeitung is calling for protest marches tomorrow at two!”
“All the marchers in the world won’t make the Soviets take down the barbed wire,” said Buford as the car pulled up to the U.S. military headquarters at Clayallee. They drove through the gates and pulled into a side lane. “If the East Germans do try to starve us out, we could do another airlift.” Burns said.
“Naw, that’s not enough,” said Buford. “Willy Brandt is right — West Berlin really does need more than words from Kennedy.”
Burns snorted, “Brandt’s an arrogant little prick, trying to boss us around like that. Who does he think he is?”
“He’s not bossing us around, my friend. He’s scared.”
Burns snapped his fingers. “I just figured out why Washington hasn’t reacted. When you phone Brandt, tell him he’s overreacting.”
Buford looked incredulous, “How is he overreacting?”
Burns gave him a grim smile. “If the Soviets were going to invade, why would they put up barbed wire and anti-tank barricades blocking their own path?”
Buford scowled, “What if they only want us to think that?”
* * *
On the other side of the city, copies of those same West German papers were being passed around the offices of a cluster of ugly greystone buildings on Normannenstrasse, whose roofs bristled with every kind of antenna imaginable. Brief spells of morning sunlight gave the offices a peculiar dull yellow tint. On surrounding city blocks, there were always signs of normal life. Not here.
The complex was not identified on any city directory or map, except as a blank white field taking up two full city blocks in Berlin-Friedrichshain. The Ministry for State Security was the most feared apparatus of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR, and its presence was felt in every community in Germany, East and West.
Every newspaper published in West Germany was sent here via special courier, sometimes with the ink still damp, to be scanned for useful information. Some readers reacted with grunts of satisfaction, many more with outright glee at the bad news for the West.
In the complex’s only living quarters, a short, squat middle-aged man was gazing out his third floor kitchen window, deep in thought after having finished his ritual early morning swim. Normally, his small hard mouth radiated disapproval. But today, his granite features betrayed just the slightest hint of a smile.
Stasi chief Erich Mielke buttoned his starched military shirt and put on his thin black necktie. Despite the oppressive humidity, there was no sweat on his brow. There never was.
It is hard to believe that it was so easy. No enemy troops massing on the borders, no missiles, just stunned silence. He picked up the special edition of the Berliner Tagepost. His eyebrows arched as he spied a short passage he’d overlooked. A West Berliner man cut the barbed wire and got away with it?
“Intolerable!” muttered Mielke. A woman and a child escaped because the soldiers reacted too late. He started jotting down notes.
It is time to make public examples of these traitors! He paused for a moment, then started again. Negligent soldiers must be punished too!
But it was the attempt itself that made his blood boil. The furrow between his eyebrows deepened as he thought of new directives:
Order employers in East Berlin to send us names of work absentees!
The families of suspected traitors should be put under pressure or even imprisoned if necessary! Alert all our informers in West Berlin to be on the lookout! West Berlin is small—known defectors can be easily located, then captured and transported back!
He finished the directive for his secretary to type up and distribute within the hour.
* * *
6:30 am the next morning
The Bachs’ doorbell kept ringing and ringing. Vicktor got to his feet. “Das istunverschämt!” He looked at Katharina, who was busy putting margarine on her bread. “Who would come calling at this hour?”
“You’d better answer the door — I don’t think they are going to go away, whoever they are.”
The doorbell rang again. Vicktor slowly tucked in his bathrobe and rose to press the button opening the front door to the apartment block. He peered down the hall, ready to admonish whoever it was, but the insults died on his lips when he saw a Volkspolizei officer bounding up the steps.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Bach.” The officer looked young enough to be a teen. “Your papers, bitte.”
“Morgen,” croaked Vicktor, his mouth suddenly dry, “What can I do for you?” He fished his papers out of his satchel.
The Vopo officer’s face was expressionless. “Is your wife Katharina at home also?” he asked, his eyes scanning Vicktor’s face for signs of guilt.
Katharina appeared at the door. “Yes, I am here. Oh!” Her eyes widened when she saw the uniform. “What’s wrong?”
The young Vopo ignored her question. “Please come with us.”
“We need time to get dressed,” said Katharina.
“There’s no time,” said the young officer, taking her by the arm. The other policeman followed close behind, occasionally stepping on the heels of Vicktor’s slippers as they went down the steps.
Outside, the older Vopo opened the back door of the Soviet-made police car.
In the corner of his eye, Vicktor could see their neighbors darting quick glances out their windows, then ducking.
The flimsy Lada door shut with a hollow thud, catching the edge of Vicktor’s bathrobe. He kept pulling, trying to wrench it free, without success.
The driver radioed headquarters, “We have them and are bringing them in.”
Katharina and Vicktor exchanged glances. She felt the young Vopo’s eyes watching in the rear-view mirror. She pulled her bathrobe tighter to better cover her breasts.
The police car’s lights were flashing, but curiously, its siren was off. Katharina wondered why. Finding no answer, she turned her gaze to all the military traffic. The little police car darted between the heavy vehicles like a mouse dodging mammoths.
They pulled up to the imposing grey Präsidium der Volkspolizei building near the rebuilt Alexanderplatz. The officer opened the door for them, leaving the edge of Vicktor’s bathrobe with an oily black smudge. “Follow me, bitte”.
They were promptly escorted past reception. To Vicktor’s surprise, they were shown to the elevators, rather than to the jails downstairs. As they waited, people stared at their pajamas, making Vicktor feel like an idiot, while Katharina feigned indifference.
The lift on the left opened and they got in with the young officer, who pressed the button to the fifth floor. The elevator was cramped and poorly lit. It moved so slowly that Katharina wasn’t really sure if they were moving at all, despite all the clanking noises and flickering lights. Then she caught the Vopo eying her cleavage. She pulled her robe tighter and kept it closed around her neck with her free hand.
There was an awkward silence as the lift stopped and the doors stayed shut. Vicktor felt a growing sense of confusion.
Finally, the doors opened and they were directed to a windowless office at the end of a dimly-lit hallway. As they walked into the small interview room, Katharina wrinkled her nose at the smell, which was unpleasant but impossible to pinpoint exactly.
“The Kommissar will be with you shortly,” said the young Vopo. He walked out and shut the door.
The chairs were straight-backed and quite hard. They sat and waited. And waited. An overhead light buzzed and went out. Vicktor whispered, “Have you talked with anyone about…”
“Nein.” Katharina shook her head.
Above them, the wall clock ticked, sometimes loud and sometimes not. Vicktor swore it was slowing down every time he looked. Katharina started yawning and could not stop. Vicktor’s stomach started growling. “They could’ve at least offered us coffee substitute.”
The walls of the office were thin and poorly insulated. Outside, doors opened and closed. Phones rang and were picked up. A pair of houseflies started pestering Vicktor’s face. A secretary walked through and avoided eye contact. As the door closed, the other overhead light started to buzz and flicker.
Vicktor felt the beginnings of a headache. Katharina found herself staring at the framed portrait of DDR leader Walter Ulbricht on the wall. Was he smiling conspiratorially behind his thick glasses and grey goatee?
* * *
The Kommissar entered the room, startling Vicktor and Katharina. “Guten Tag, Genossen!”
“Guten Tag, Herr Kommissar,” said Katharina and Vicktor, standing on reflex.
“You may sit down, Genossen.” The Kommissar, a heavyset man in his 40s, had not slept well in a while, judging from the bags under his eyes. Katharina noticed the ends of his graying mustache were also unevenly cut. He briefly looked them over as he took out a file. “You are Katharina and Albert Gieske of Karl-Marx-Allee, Hausnummer 69 f, richtig?”
“No,” said Vicktor, a little too quickly. “Katharina and Vicktor Bach, Herr Kommissar. But the house number is correct.”
The Kommissar eyed them for a moment. He shuffled though several thick folders on his cluttered desk, muttering, “Bach? Bach… Ach! Here it is!” He opened the thin file and scanned the single page inside. A quizzical look came over his round face. “Komisch…” He flipped the page over.
Vicktor finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Why did you bring us here?”
“Don’t rush me, I’m getting to that!” said the Kommissar. His lips moved soundlessly as he scanned the document. He glanced again at the page front. “So… you are Katharina and Vicktor Bach of Karl-Marx-Allee, Hausnummer 69 f, correct?”
“Yes,” said Katharina.
“And your daughter is named Bettina Erika Bach, aged approximately nine months?”
Katharina’s eyes widened. “What? Is there any news about her?”
“News?” The Kommissar gave her a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“Where is she?” said Vicktor.
“Is she safe?” said Katharina, worry in her eyes.
The Kommissar stared at them coldly. “You don’t even know where your baby daughter is?”
“Er… no,” said Vicktor .
“And why is that?”
Vicktor swallowed nervously, “She went to the festival with her uncle Georg on Saturday.”
The Kommissar’s eyes narrowed. “And you haven’t heard from this Onkel since then?”
“Richtig.” said Vicktor.
“Which festival was it, then?”
“The Kreuzberger Festliche Tage.”
“Kreuzberg?!” The Kommissar looked dumbfounded. “What on earth was in Kreuzberg?”
Vicktor said, “It was a special fair for children from East and West to promote friendship and peace.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“Hardly a responsible thing to do, allowing your infant daughter to participate in a propaganda stunt for the West!”
“But it was announced in the Berliner Zeitung!” protested Vicktor.
“And we had no reason to think our government was about to close the borders!” added Katharina.
The Kommissar stared to lecture them like small children. “Um Himmels Willen! After all the recent acts of aggression from the West, you did not expect that our government would act to protect our great nation and our people?!” He snorted derisively. “Now you have paid the price for such negligence!”
Katharina started crying. “We just want our daughter back.”
Vicktor put an arm about her shoulders. He bit his lip to keep from saying they really wanted to flee.
Suddenly the Kommissar recalled something. “This uncle… his last name is also Bach?”
“No, it’s Bauer,” said Vicktor.
“Oh! That changes everything!” The Kommissar suddenly got up and left.
Vicktor glanced at his wife, “What the hell was that all about?”
“No idea.” Katharina was daubing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
Five minutes later, the Kommissar returned, carrying a new folder. He slapped it briskly on the desk and announced happily. “Frau und Herr Bach, I wish to inform you that we have started a criminal investigation!”
Katharina dropped her handkerchief on the floor. “How so?”
The Kommissar glanced at the report, “Frau Bach, is Jutta Bauer your natural sister?”
“No, my half sister, she’s older by eleven years. Why are you asking?”
“Frau Bauer filed charges against Georg Bauer this morning…” The Kommissar leafed through the file, “…for kidnapping her infant niece Bettina, who must be your daughter.”
Vicktor and Katharina looked at each other, too stunned to speak. Finally, Katharina found her voice. “Kidnapping?!”
“Kidnapping, Frau Bach. We are taking this matter quite seriously, I can assure you-”
“But… but,” stammered Vicktor, “How could it be kidnapping? The border was sealed off only hours ago! How could Georg have known before it actually happened?”
The Kommissar gave him another stony look and pointed to his watch. “It is now 16:43. The border to the West has been closed since midnight. Im Endeffekt, Herr Bauer has had ample opportunity to approach the Volksarmee soldiers guarding our border and turn himself and your little girl over to us — all he needed to do was to show his East German papers. The fact that he has not done this, despite having your infant daughter, alone justifies the charges. I should mention that this case,” he closed the folder, “is now no longer under our jurisdiction. I am sending it to the Ministry for State Security, where this will be given top priority, I can assure you!” He put the file in an official MfS manila, ran the flap under his tongue and sealed it with a flourish.
Shell-shocked, Vicktor and Katharina continued sitting for several minutes.
The Kommissar looked up from his work. “What? Is there something else?”
“What do you mean?” asked Vicktor.
“Why are you still here?”
“You mean we can go?”
“Vicktor and Katharina slowly walked out.
“What do we do now?” said Katharina.
“I wish I knew,” replied Vicktor, pushing the elevator button.
“Can’t we take the stairs?” Katharina tugged nervously at her robe. “I don’t trust that thing.”
Vicktor shrugged. “All right.” They emerged in the entrance hall a couple of minutes later, after Vicktor had to stop and retrieve a slipper that had come off on the stairs.
Everyone in the lobby turned and stared as they went to the security desk to ask about a ride home. The Vopos refused point blank to drive them home, so they were forced to walk back in their bathrobes and slippers.
The Ministry for State Security is involved now! That knowledge chilled Vicktor to the bone. Just thinking about it made him very aware of people staring as they passed. Some didn’t even bother to lower their voices. “Look at those two crazies! Can you imagine walking outside in broad daylight in pajamas and slippers!”
“Either they’re drunk — or intellectuals!” There was a burst of scornful laughter.
“Maybe they are escapees from a psychiatric ward! Do you think we should call the Vopos and have them picked up?”
Vicktor’s face flushed red. Katharina returned their stares until they looked away.
Taxis started pulling up as they went outside. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”.
“What, without money?” said Vicktor irritably. “Just leave us alone!”
It took them 45 minutes to reach their apartment, and by then, Vicktor was hobbling on feet badly blistered from his slippers. Even so, he rushed to change into his work clothes and go to work, giving Katharina a brief peck on the cheek as he dashed out the door.
The minute Vicktor walked in the entrance of the Magistrat Groß-Berlin, the guard at reception said, “Genosse Bach, supervisor Korb wants to see you.”
Vicktor felt sick to his stomach as he went to the Oberdirektor’s office. Herr Korb looked up from his paperwork. “Bach, why are you late?”
“The Volkspolizei took me and my wife to-”
“The Volkspolizei?! What did you do?”
“We did nothing, I assure you! But our baby girl is trapped on the other side of the border-”
Korb’s eyebrows shot up. “Genosse Bach, I am worried for you and your future! I shall not ask what your daughter was doing in West Berlin, as I’m sure the Volkspolizei will get to the bottom of that. But in the meantime, unless they decide to arrest you for neglecting your duties as a parent, I expect you to be punctual, every single day. Do you understand?”
Vicktor swallowed heavily. “Ja.”
“You are hereby assigned to help Hausmeister Maiworm for the rest of the week. Please go to him immediately, he is waiting.”
Vicktor’s hands were shaking as he left. In the hall, he almost collided with an armed workers’ militiaman. Vicktor stammered his apologies. He could feel the man’s cold blue eyes watching him all the way down the hall. It was almost a relief to find himself in front of Maiworm’s office.
The Hausmeister handed him a heavy toolbox and a pair of old gloves when Vicktor knocked. “Here, you’ll need these — all the toilets are backing up!” grunted Maiworm behind a cloud of cigar smoke. “All our plumbers got summoned to the border by the Volksarmee! I assume you know how to take apart toilet pipes?”
* * *
Vicktor left work feeling exhausted. He reeked of sweat and human waste, and his hands were heavily blistered from gripping unfamiliar tools. The way home was strangely still, no vehicles on the streets.
When he walked into their apartment, Katharina grabbed his arm, “Close the door!”
He quickly did so, locking it and leaving the key hanging in the inside lock to prevent anyone else unlocking it.
She pointed at their television set, “LOOK at this!” It was the West German ARD network, broadcasting live from the Berlin border.
She caught a whiff of his work clothes as he sat down and wrinkled her nose. “Gott, what is that smell?”
Vicktor didn’t answer. He too was transfixed by the images. “That’s the Brandenburger Tor they’re sealing off!”
The DDR’s newly implemented electronic jamming obscured the picture intermittently. After a while, the static cleared, revealing a titanic struggle at the edge of Berlin-Wedding, where people on the western side were clustering around a 6-story apartment house right on the border. The doorway was in technically in East Germany, but the barbed wire ended at the building’s corner. The announcer started yelling, “Volksarmee soldiers are breaking their way into the building as we speak!”
A couple on the first floor jumped out as soldiers were breaking down their door. People on the upper floors stared out helplessly, too scared to spring. More soldiers could be seen evicting other residents and throwing belongings out into the street.
On the western side, a volunteer fire brigade came screeching up and started unfolding large tarpaulins.
The camera panned to a window several floors above. A woman’s face peered out briefly and disappeared. The camera zoomed in. The commentator gasped. “Look! She’s holding a little child!”
The woman lifted the terrified child out the window, bracing herself in the windowsill with her legs. “Mein Gott! She… she wants to throw the child — a little girl, I believe — out the window! That’s a four-story drop!!”
The woman held the girl out and released her.
Time froze as the camera followed the child tumbling headfirst. At the very last second, the girl righted herself and landed on a tarpaulin held by firemen. The crowd roared. The camera swung back. The mother was still on the ledge, but the struggle inside appeared to be intensifying.
Soldiers’ helmets appeared out of neighboring windows.
At street level, the firemen were still readying the makeshift trampoline.
“Ooh nein!” squealed Katharina, grabbing Vicktor by the shoulder. “She’s going to be captured!”
The woman could wait no longer and leapt. A pair of soldiers grabbed her ankle, making her head slam into the building. A dark splotch appeared on the bricks, and the soldiers began pulling her limp form inside.
A man’s face appeared out of thin air. The camera panned back to reveal a lone fireman perched on a ladder, on the penultimate rung. With a heroic lunge, he managed to grab the woman’s hand.
Above him, the soldiers tugged on the woman’s legs, shaking her like a rag doll. The fireman pulled back, using his body weight. His colleagues started up the ladder, which began bending dangerously, forcing them to climb down.
More helmeted soldiers poked their heads out one floor below the struggle. They started shaking the ladder.
“Scheiße!” Katharina started pounding the sofa with her fists.
The ladder went crashing down sideways, leaving the lone fireman hanging on to the woman’s arm, his legs kicking futilely in the air. A soldier tried to grab his foot, just as his comrades above lost their grip on the woman. She tumbled end over end, taking her would-be rescuer with her, the televisions cameras following the bodies down, down, down…
There was a huge roar when they both fell into the makeshift trampoline. Several firemen carried the still-unconscious woman near where Georg happened to be standing and tried to revive her in the face with mineral water.
She started coughing and her eyes fluttered open. A look of pure horror crossed her face. From her couch, Katharina could read the woman’s lips: “Sind Sie West-Berliner?”
Vicktor turned the volume down. “We need to talk.”
Katharina saw Vicktor’s face was ashen, “What happened?”
“My boss almost reported me to the Volkspolizei, just because I was late to work today.”
“So it’s gone that far,” said Katharina, her eyes still drifting to the television.
Vicktor could see the images reflecting in her large brown eyes. “I told him about our interview with the police, but even that wasn’t good enough. He made it very clear I was on thin ice. Our chances of escaping are gone.”
“Don’t say that!” Katharina’s face flushed with anger. “You don’t know for sure!”
“Yes I do. You are just refusing to admit it. All of us are being watched. The offices at work are now patrolled day and night by Workers’ Militiamen from the SED. Anything that looks remotely like a meeting is streng verboten. I cannot even stop and chat with a colleague without one of them poking me in the ribs with a gun. The safety on their guns is unlocked, and they always make sure we see that.”
“That’s horrible!” Katharina shuddered. “But they cannot do anything once you’re away from work. They don’t follow you home-“
“Maybe not, but the Volkspolizei know us on sight now. They also know our baby girl is in West Berlin. The instant we try to flee, we’ll be arrested.”’
“You’re abandoning Bettina!”
“We don’t have a choice — unless you think going to jail is going to help things.”
Katharina looked away, fighting back tears. “I feel like we already are in prison!”
They sat in silence for several minutes. It was so quiet that Vicktor could hear the neighbors’ radios. He got up and switched the television off. “Look, I know how horrible you feel. I feel just as bad.”
She looked away. Vicktor took both her hands and squeezed them tightly. “But it could be worse. We have each other. We have our flat. You… your family has good connections with the Party. We do have a future… If I can keep my job, we might be able to get a car in some years and travel-”
“I want to travel now!” cried Katharina. “I want my baby!”
“We can’t! That is the reality. Look, I may not be worth much to you now as your husband, but at least you have me to trust and talk with. You don’t want to end up like the Gieskes.”
At the mention of their neighbors downstairs, Katharina stopped crying. “What happened to them?”
“They were caught yesterday in the drainage canals under Potsdamer Platz. A colleague at work told me in the canteen, while the militiamen were interrogating some other colleagues. He had seen the Gieske children being dragged out by the Vopos yesterday evening, covered head to foot in dreck.” He shuddered.
Tears began streaming down Katharina’s cheeks. “What kind of a country is this? I want out!”
The electricity went off, plunging the apartment into darkness.